By Zach Gorwitz.
2013 was a year of two great men. Two men reformed behemoth institutions that were set in their ways. Two men shed an intellectual light on practices that were backwards and shrouded in secrecy. Only one of these men won TIME’s Person of the Year award, and congratulations to Pope Francis for a well-deserved award. However, the right choice for person of year was America’s (Russia’s?) Edward Snowden. BUT, while TIME Magazine made the wrong choice in Pope Francis, the New York Times made an equally incorrect choice in calling for Snowden’s pardoning.
Yes, the man I consider a criminal is absolutely the most influential person of 2013.
For a decade, conversations about the National Security Agency and domestic surveillance took place in back rooms of the West Wing and in hushed tones at closed Congressional hearings. Edward Snowden knowingly broke the law to bring these conversations to the forefront. He sacrificed his life as a free man to illuminate (what he saw as) injustices and abuses against American liberties. He deliberately broke the law. He didn’t whistleblow, or file a complaint with his supervisor, or write a strongly worded op-ed in the Duke Political Review. He took action that led to serious discussion: The President’s end of the year press conference was dominated by NSA questions, foreign leaders called the United States out for spying, and President Obama even took executive action to create a panel to represent consumers to the FISA courts.
By TIME’s definition, the most influential person of the year drove the most news. Game over. For over half a year, the Snowden saga dominated the newspapers. Even when he wasn’t mentioned specifically, stories about privacy, security, or the NSA caught headlines. Snowden redefined the conversation about privacy the same way the tragic events of 9/11 transformed the conversation about Terrorism.
TIME got it wrong. So did the New York Times.
On the first of this year, the New York Times Editorial Board called for Snowden’s pardoning. While Snowden’s influence is impressive and lasting, his actions were criminal. If Snowden had simply exposed the violations of constitutional rights in the NSA, he would be a whistleblower. But, he indiscriminately leaked documents that have given U.S. enemies too much information. His leaks have contained information about CIA missions in Iran, counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan, and the location of top Taliban targets. This serves no public good, it does not protect Constitutional rights, and it does not push for reform. Those leaks put people in danger and set our military efforts back. Snowden’s actions were careless and gave the impression of a disgruntled employee. These actions deserve punishment, not clemency.
Above all, Edward Snowden needs to be remembered as a reminder that the status quo does not change without action and that action is not always legal or accepted. Until he came along, the White House and the NSA were putting out lies about the scope of surveillance programs and Americans were oblivious to how they were being watched. Now these practices will be forever challenged and scrutinized. He also made grave mistakes, and those mistakes should not be overlooked.
What you just read was a bunch of politically correct equivocation, ambivalence, and neutrality. How do I really feel about what Edward Snowden did? It is a complicated question that pits the importance of civil liberties and honest governance against safety and human lives. He made us choose between security in our own heads and security overseas (and even domestically). Neither of these options can truly be quantified. How much is privacy worth? Just how threatened were operatives overseas as a result of the information Snowden leaked? Yet, I can’t shake the dystopian words of the Orwells, Vonneguts, Bradburys, and Kunderas—a life made entirely of public communication and the erosion of the private individual is not a life worth living. But, again, I have to ask: Did anyone’s life really need to be endangered for the government to entertain a conversation about reform? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way I can’t help but be happy Snowden did what he did.
To realize Snowden’s goal of reforming our domestic and international surveillance, especially making it more transparent, we have to recognize his accomplishments for what they are—incredible, monumental, and nothing less than deserving of the Person of the Year award. But in doing so, we must not pardon Mr. Snowden and ensure that simple domestic reform does not turn into international catastrophe again.